Names & Americans

Some years ago, I had a reader comment that those two names shouldn’t go together because one was Danish and the other British. I don’t remember the names now. The reader was maybe Swedish? I know it was one of my international readers. I did a blog post at the time, but I decided to do another one after a meme brought up questions about how to pronounce the names of characters in my books.

As an American, I don’t think about the origins of names very often. Aislinn is an Irish-Celt name in origin. Malachi is Hebrew as is Lucas. Zavier is French. Nyleena I made up (I think, I’ve never found it in a baby name book). Cain is not an Irish last name though and Blake is not a Hebrew last name and McMichaels is definitely not Hebrew (but could probably pass as Irish or Scotch). Reece probably isn’t a French last name. Gabriel is also Hebrew while Henders isn’t.

My real last name (remember I use a pen name) is Scottish. James is a first name appropriated as a last name and is technically Hebrew in origin. As an American though, my name simply reflects I’m an American. As generations are born in America they slowly begin to move away from their origins and names that reflect them.

Marriage complicates the matter. I married a man with a very German last name. I kept my own last name mostly because it is expensive to change business paperwork and at that time, I’d literally done all the paperwork for making Hadena James publishing a thing six months earlier and didn’t want to pay out the fees a second time to change the name on it and J said he didn’t care. However, had I taken his last name, that would have given me a Hebrew first name, a Scottish middle name, and a German last name.

Common first names among English speaking Americans are different than they are in Canada, England, Australia, and South Africa which only adds more layers to naming patterns. In 2018 in the US the top 10 baby names for girls were Olivia, Amelia, Isla, Emily, Ava, Lilly, Mia, Sophia, Isabella, and Grace. In Australia they were Ava, Charlotte, Amelia, Olivia, Mia, Isla, Harper, Sophia, Lily, and Willow. Yes, there’s overlap, but Charlotte, Harper, and Willow did not appear in the top 10 for US baby names, although they did in the top 100 names for girls. And note that the rankings are different. Olivia was the top name for a girl in 2018 in the US, but Ava was the top name for a girl in Australia.

I have been told this is because Australia and Canada are a bit more like the US than England and South Africa. It is more “melting pot” where lots of cultures and origin countries have disappeared within naming schemes. A girl named Jessica, which is Hebrew, is just as likely to have a Spanish, British, or German last name as a Hebrew one.

And name pronunciation is often regional. For instance, in high school, I had a kid in my biology class named Xavier. He pronounced it X-zavier with emphasis on the X, which is fairly common in Mid-Missouri. My teacher struggled with his name, because where she had grown up in Minnesota, she pronounced it as a “J” and not the silent J of Javier, but an actual J sound, to our teacher his name was Javier with a hard J. In a creative writing class in college, my professor who was from the east coast pronounced it Zavier. Ditto on names like Malachi, Caleb (Kah-lab) is how one of my friends pronounced his name, even though I always pronounced it “Kay-lib”. When I write this name in my books, I still pronounce it Kay-lib, although I have heard about a dozen different pronunciations.

Even my name “Hadena” has some debate. People often pronounce it in a way that sounds “wrong” to my ears. For instance, at least one reader says “had-nah” with no stress anywhere. But I pronounce it “Ha-dean-ah” with stress on the first syllable “HA-dean-ah.” And to me, it has 3 syllables, not 2.

The hardest to pronounce names among my characters are Aislinn, Malachi, and Melina. Although, soon I’ll be adding Sorcha and it may take the top spot over Malachi. Where I’m from Malachi is pronounced “Mal-ah-KAI” with stress on the last syllable. And until recently, I didn’t realize there were other ways to pronounce Malachi. They aren’t “wrong” exactly, they just sound wrong to me, because I’m comfortable with a certain type of pronunciation. If you really need an example of the pronounce of Aislinn, I recommend the movie Dragon Heart with Sean Connery, the queen in that movie is named Queen Aislinn. And there is a Malachi in the movie Children of the Corn pronounced the way I pronounce it. I can’t think of any movies with a Caleb at the moment, but I’m sure there are some. Just like, I can’t think of an example of Melina, but I know my Russian professor pronounced it “Mah-lean-ah” and I figure that’s probably pretty close to correct since she had lived in the Soviet Union for most of the 1980s.

Anyway, the point was, for me, as an American writer, having a name like Ivan Daniels, isn’t a big deal. Yes, Ivan is a Slavic name and Daniels isn’t, but it would be just another name in the US with nothing requiring Ivan Daniels to be either Slavic or Irish.

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